The Loire Valley – delicious sparkling for summer

So Summer finally seems to be here and at such times lighter, fresher wines seem to be the order of the day. I never actually go on a pic-nic, but my mind always turns to the sorts of wines that would be great with one at this time of year.

Recently I have been showing quite a lot of Loire Vally wines at consumer events – I was also thinking bout the Loire because of my travel guide of the region –  and it struck me that the wines of the Loire are often just right to go with eating outdoors, whether a proper picnic, or sitting in the garden.

The beautiful Loire Valley.

The Loire of course produces many different wine styles along its banks, but by and large they are fresher rather than richer, so they feel light and easy to drink even in warm weather. This makes them more refreshing too.

I really enjoyed showing a range of sparkling wines from the Loire valley at the recent Three Wine Men event in London. I don’t think that Sparkling wines, other than Champagne and Prosecco, get enough attention. There are so many lovely sparkling wines out there from all sorts of places and sometimes you simply do want Champagne or cannot justify the cost of Champagne. I certainly liked all of these and think they are well worth seeking out.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Loire Valley Sparkling Wines

While pretty much every wine producing country makes good sparkling, France makes something of a speciality of it with nigh on every region making quality sparkling wine, many of them are called Crémant followed by the name of the wine region. By this I mean a sparkling wine made fizzy by the traditional method as used for Champagne. Indeed any French sparkling wine with an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – call it what you will, they are the same thing – must be made fizzy by the Traditional or Ancestral Method. The Ancestral Method / Méthode Ancestrale is an older more primitive version of what became the Traditional Method. The wines can also be called Pétillant Naturel, or even Pét-Nat by the hipster community, and unlike Champagne etc. the yeast is left in the bottle instead of being removed and this often leaves the wines cloudy. 

When making a sparkling wine, what you need most is acidity to make the finished wine fresh and lively and the Loire uses a grape that delivers plenty of this freshness – Chenin Blanc.

There are several different sparkling wine PDOs in the Loire, Crémant de Loire, Touraine Mousseux, Vouvray and Saumur and there’re many excellent wines produced. The examples that I particularly enjoyed recently were:

Monmousseau Cuvée J M Brut
AC / PDO Touraine
Monmousseau
Loire
France

Monmousseau is a large producer founded by Alcide Monmousseau in 1886 when he turned a large quarry, previously a source of building stone for the the Châteaux of the Loire, into a cellar for ageing sparkling wine. This quarry became a network of 15 km of galleries that are remain at a constant 12˚C, the perfect temperature to age wine.

This wine is one of their top sparklers – named in honour of Justin-Marcel Monmousseau, the nephew and heir of Alcide Monmousseau – and is made from a blend of 80% Chenin Blanc, the typical grape for Loire Valley sparklers, and 20% Chardonnay. It is aged on the yeast sediment (lees in English / lies in French) left over from the second fermentation in the bottle, for some 24 months. This ageing on the yeast sediment gives the classic complexity of yeast autolysis, biscuit, brioche, flakey pastry and sometimes caramel too.

The aromas are light and fresh with green apple, citrus and jasmine flowers and a little touch of digestive biscuit. The palate is crisp and taut with fresh, clean acidity, apple and lemon fruit together with some chalky /earthy / minerality – it grows in chalky soils – and a touch of biscuity richness on the finish. A very nice, well made sparkler that would be perfect as an aperitif or served with anything light. It met with wine approval when I showed it recently – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Spirited Wines
For US stockists – click here.

The Loire in Touraine.

Château de la Presle Jean-Marie Penet Brut
AC / PDO Crémant de Loire
Château de la Presle, Domaine Penet
Loire
France

Another Touraine producer that started about the same time as Monmousseau in fact in 1885. It is now run by the fifth generation of the same family, but until 1970 was mixed farm whereas now the focus is purely wine. Since 1998 it has been run by Anne-Sophie Penet and her Burgundian wine maker husband Frédéric Meurgey.

This Cuvée is their top sparkler and is made from 75% Chardonnay with 25% of the little known Arbois. I do not know how long it is aged on the lees, but it seems like it was quite a long time to me.

This is a richer, deeper more serious sparkling wine with a richer, nutty, brioche-like aroma together with peach and apple. The palate is again rich and rounded with a softness and a feeling of dry honey and apple strudel. This is a superb sparkling wine, full of character and flavour. It makes a sophisticated, intimate aperitif or would go beautifully with rich fish dishes, rice dishes and white meat – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Gerrard Seel, St Andrews Wine Company, Silver Fox Wines & Wood Winters

Vouvray cellars dug into the rock.

Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Pétillant Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau
Loire
France

An exemplary estate in Vouvray, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau was founded in 1875 and is farmed by the fifth generation of the Vigneau-Chevreau to make wine here. Over that time the domaine has expanded from 5 to over 30 hectares and is one of only two biodynamic producers in the area.

This wine is, as always for Vouvray, 100% Chenin Blanc, has less fizz than normal sparkling wine – full sparkling wines are Mousseux, this is Pétillant – and it is aged on the lees / yeast sediment for 18 months.

This carries its ageing week as it is a light, lithe and precise wine with aromas of pear, apple and citrus and a palate of crisp green apple, richer pear and a hint of apricot and quince. The acidity and minerality make it a mouthwatering aperitif and a bright aperitif – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Roberts & Speight, The Solent Cellar, David Bell McCraith and Wood Winters – more stockist information is available from Thorman Hunt & Co Ltd.
For US stockists – click here.

The beautiful Chateau de Moncontour.

Château Moncontour Vouvray Tête de Cuvée Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Château Moncontour
Loire
France

A very old estate, this was purchased by the Feray Family in the 1990s and it has never looked back. Again 100% Chenin Blanc, this is a Cuvée (blend) made from the best fruit and aged for around 18 months on the yeast – although it tastes like it was aged longer.

Yeast autolysis dominates this wine, it even smells of toast – yeast / lees can give a good impression of oak sometimes. Rich pear, cooked lemon, quince, honey, apple compote are all here as well as some frangipane / bakewell pudding sort of character making it feel pretty rich and flavourful, although the brisk acidity certainly cleanses the palate making it balanced. An intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Slurp.co.uk
For US stockists – click here.

So you see, further proof that there is much more to sparkling wine than just Champagne, Cava and Proseco. The sparklers from the Loire are very varied in style and often very good indeed.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.